A political reputation totters precariously in the Libyan storm.

Last May, William Hague arrived at the Foreign Office as one of the most popular and authoritative figures in Britain's Conservative Party, a key player in the Coalition.

Now, in the latest twist of his curiously oscillating political journey, there is speculation whether he will be in his post for much longer. Hague, a master of ridicule, is ridiculed. Seemingly calm, he has become part of a damaging narrative for a Government that poses potentially lethal questions about its competence.

His bumpy ride at the Foreign Office could not have been anticipated. Hague is in some ways the most tested member of the Cabinet, armed with a natural array of political talents. He was a Cabinet minister in the dying days of the Major era and then leader of his party for four arduous years. Compared with the pasts of Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne, Hague is a heavyweight veteran.

He is also quick witted, calm and intelligent. Such was his effortless command before last year's election that some in the Conservative Party and the media speculated that Hague might even be Cameron's first Chancellor. Yet this week, during his statement on the bungled SAS venture in Libya, he was not only criticised by MPs, but mocked as well.

As part of his formidable political repertoire, Hague can mock effectively, combining the right amount of wit with a dose of forensic teasing that hits home. On Tuesday, shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander, not known for his humour, managed to get MPs to laugh with him at Hague. In response, the Foreign Secretary appeared curiously flat, conveying a sense of disenchanted distance. The reversal of roles was eerie and striking.

Even some of those inside No10 who are admirers of Hague are beginning to wonder what is happening.

There is a second important dimension to the puzzle. Hague has held another big job in British politics and had a traumatic time of it. As Leader of the Opposition after the 1997 election won by Tony Blair, Hague led his party to a calamitous defeat four years later. In the early stages he was ridiculed for wearing a baseball cap and for not looking cool on a visit to the Notting Hill Carnival.

His election campaign in 2001 was absurd. He seemed to spend most of his time in Dover, warning voters to save the pound. Later Hague admitted he had fought a crude core-vote strategy out of fear the Conservatives faced even bigger slaughter if he had not. He resigned the day after the election and said he was going to take piano lessons - an early sign, perhaps, of a belated hunger for life outside politics, from a figure who had been a political addict from his early teens.

Yet there are mitigating circumstances in both cases. When he became leader in 1997, his party was demoralised and yet still defiantly right wing. Blair was on a honeymoon that excited all parts of the political spectrum. It would have taken a Tory titan to make much headway.

Now, Hague is accused of not being in control of events. Yet he cannot be in control. No one knows what will happen next in Libya, nor can anyone pull strings to bring about a sought-after outcome. Hague is Foreign Secretary of a country still traumatised by Iraq and incapable of running a proper public transport system - let alone leading the downfall of Gaddafi. Quite a lot of the cock- ups have been operational rather than strategic. Nonetheless a pattern is forming. Hague has struggled to a surprising extent in two important political roles for which he seemed to be suited. As Tory leader, he was responsible for a series of misjudgments that made matters worse; from his relentless focus on Europe to his promise of tax cuts that were not credible.

In the current situation, a Foreign Secretary must exude calmness, yet also a sense of urgency. Hague's Buddha-like calm has appeared to verge on near indifference, a perception reinforced when things do not run according to plan.

That suspicion is fuelled because Hague has not spelled out, in opposition or in power, his vision of a British foreign policy. He has displayed a welcome, brave pragmatism on Europe, but has not explained, beyond a few references to his defeat in 2001, why he no longer preaches a more eurosceptic message.

Although originally a strong supporter of the war in Iraq, he appears to have moved towards a greater expediency in relation to Britain's capacity to intervene. But there has been no defining exposition. As a former Labour minister has noted, the Foreign Office will deliver, but only when it knows what the Government wants delivering.

Part of the mystery is why we should be mystified. Why was Hague expected to thrive as Foreign Secretary, when he struggled to make his mark as leader of his party? The answer reveals as much about Britain's political culture as his elusive personality.

Very shortly after Hague resigned as Tory leader, his popularity soared. As leader he was dismissed as being superficial when he deployed his wit against Blair. Blair used to declare, "He might be good at the jokes" implying that this was the limit of Hague's offering as a politician. But once he had resigned in 2001, his wit was hailed as a great weapon. Voters wanted more. Similarly, when he delivered speeches as leader, Hague struggled to fill a hall. After he had resigned, he was one of the most in-demand speakers in the business, earning substantial sums on the after-dinner circuit.

Hague became more of a political star when he stepped back from politics. Politicians are driven partly by ambition. The hunger to be a leader, or at least a big player, is part of the energetic drive of most senior political figures. Hague has no such hunger, as he has been a leader already.

In some circumstances a lack of giddy appetite can be a source of immense strength. Cameron often turned to Hague for advice in opposition, knowing he had been through the same experience - and reassured that Hague did not want his job.

But the combination of Hague's instinctively laid-back approach and his lack of any further political ambition has made him look a ghostly figure when he needs to be a commanding one.

Irrespective of whether all ambition is spent, Hague has one of the most stimulating jobs in government at a time of great international flux. Evidently he can walk away because he did so in 2001 after losing the election. But to do so with undue haste would not fit the complex pattern of Hague's strange career. At the very least his well-developed sense of political history will urge him to stay.

As Hague totters the Government totters too, a coalition of two parties led by a trio of youthful politicians - Cameron, Osborne, Clegg - who have never been in government before, facing economic and international crises.

In such circumstances there will be more cock-ups. If they occur in Hague's brief, the pressure on him will grow. Yesterday, even his absence at Prime Minister's Questions caused a fleeting stir. Where was he? As it turned out, he was at Buckingham Palace on a long-arranged engagement.

The past few days have seemed a long way from his days as a presenter on topical TV news quiz show Have I Got News For You, as author of a highly-praised biography on Pitt the Younger and, as a former leader, the best speaker at Tory conferences in the final years of Cameron's leadership in opposition. Hague, the life-long political addict, is a model for our anti-politics era. He had more authority when he wielded no power.

- INDEPENDEDNT